The business originated after a naïve move from New Zealand found Kerry & Annie Hilton and their family in the center of the red light district, and their eyes opened to a world of hopeless women in need of an income alternative. In 2001 Freeset humbly entered the scene with 20 brave women who dared to leave the sex trade behind for the hope and dignity offered to them by a couple of strangers.
At wages double to that of comparable employment, along with health insurance, pension plans, education opportunities, and child care, the women not only are equipped to change their own lives, but to bring freedom to their families as well. Profits for Freeset are turned into funds to further grow the business to bring more women the opportunity of a life beyond the streets.
Sonali stands in a doorway… waiting. The smile on her face? Just part of the job. Stolen from her village, she was dragged - wide-eyed and innocent - to the back streets of Calcutta and sold into prostitution by a stranger. At the age of just thirteen she was drugged and then raped by the first customer.
Bashanti stands in line each day thanks to her mother. She was the one sacrificed so the rest of the family could eat.
This is life in Sonagacchi, where women stand shoulder to shoulder, as far as the eye can see. Twenty thousand men visit this place daily, eyeing up lines of women as if shopping in a supermarket.
There’s nothing glamorous about this place. Sonali and Bashanti are among the ten thousand women who work in Sonagacchi the oldest and largest of Calcutta's many sex districts. Some women are paid as little as US50 cents per customer – just enough to buy a simple meal.Society shuns these women. They are branded “outcasts" for life. They didn't choose prostitution - it chose them.
Bring up the subject of prostitution and most people will usually think of sex, exploitation, or maybe AIDS. But for those who control prostitution it’s really about money - it's about BUSINESS.
Now, prostitution is not the only business in Sonagacchi. Slavery is being challenged by a company whose focus is freedom. Freeset’s business is actually freedom. It gives women a positive choice. For the first time in their lives they can decide for themselves to leave the sex trade and make plans for the future. This freedom is achieved through making and selling quality jute bags and T-shirts. The goal is not just freedom for the families of Freeset, it’s freedom for an entire community of outcasts. The brothels no longer have Sonagacchi to themselves.
Where do you begin with such an ambitious endeavour? One approach is to rescue the women from their situation. The problem is, this creates an empty room waiting to be filled by a new girl, an opening for another daughter to be stolen, another innocent to be drugged and raped. Sadly, there's no shortage of girls for this soul-destroying business. Freeset works differently. The business premises are deliberately located on the fringe of Sonagacchi. Women leave their life in the sex trade but stay in their homes, just a short walk from work. The goal: to transform Sonagacchi from within, replacing one trade with another. Over time, the community will be filled with more and more people free from prostitution.
Freeset believes that businesses can make a powerful difference in people’s lives rather than just filling the pockets of the people who own and run them. Clearly for a business to be sustainable it must make products that people want to buy and sell them at a profit or it goes broke. The key for Freeset is that all those profits are used to benefit the women and to grow the business, so more and more can experience freedom.
Freeset uses an "upside down" model that turns the normal principles of running a business on their head. Businesses generally choose the best people for a job and pay them the lowest possible wages. Freeset employs women on the basis of their need for freedom, rather than their skill-level. They are trained and then paid well above the going market rate. The transformation in the women’s lives is clearly apparent, simply because they’ve been given a chance.
Sandya really struggled during her three months of intensive training. Some extra one-on-one attention means today she sews quality bags and her self-confidence has improved immensely.
Pay-day has been revolutionized at Freeset too. The women are all paid the same, regardless of their skill-level - around twice what they could earn in a similar job elsewhere. They have a stake in the success of the business, they know they have to turn up and do their very best work - it's not just a handout. They’re working towards their freedom and there is dignity in that.
The bottom line? Freeset is about transforming people and a community. This approach isn’t without it’s challenges. Back in 2001 when Freeset began with 20 women, they were only sewing 40 bags a day – two bags each – and some of them were inside out and upside down. It’s taken a lot of commitment to bring the women’s sewing and productivity level up to a standard acceptable for export.
The women are taught to read and write their own language. When Freeset first started it quickly became apparent that the majority of the women couldn’t read or write. Just a few could write their own names. Now they can all sign their names when they collect their pay - even if some struggle a bit. They’re taught simple words, so they can read what the bus says for example, because many of them couldn't do that before. Basic math tutoring also empowers the women to know when someone is trying to rip them off at the market. Literacy allows them to participate more fully in the world around them.
A budgeting service helps the women manage their finances and they are encouraged to save for the future. Freeset also provides a pension plan and health insurance. Low-cost day-care is provided for children while their mothers are at work. This keep children away from the perils of the sex district during the day.
Freeset's dreams are big. A milestone was reached in 2004 with the purchase of a large building and electric sewing machines. After several years squeezed into a small space, Freeset was able to grow and meet an ever-increasing demand for Freeset bags. A few years on and we are already in need of another new building. With 140 women on staff and an active training program, the goal is to continue growing the work force. The dream of seeing hundreds even thousands employed by Freeset is on it's way to becoming a reality.
When Freeset first started, the women would say the business was making jute bags. Now they know better. No they know it's their freedom.